John Allen Taylor is the author of the chapbook Unmonstrous (YesYes Books, 2019). His poems appear in DIAGRAM, Nashville Review, The Common, Pleiades, and other places. In addition to his role as the co-director of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, John serves as the senior poetry reader for Ploughshares, coordinates the writing center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and bakes sourdough bread. For more, visit johnallentaylor.com.
Ben Togut: How has the release/reception been for Unmonstrous so far?
John Allen Taylor: As far as our literary circles and community go, wonderful. The people I’ve talked to have been generous, receptive, warm, and kind. Working with YesYes, with the editors and design team, was a great experience. The release at AWP was really beautiful, and the reading that we gave there was wonderful and a great memory I’ll carry for a long time. However, as you might imagine having read the book, not everyone in my life knew all the details that the book recounts. Honestly, today was the first time I opened the book since March. I really did take a needed break from it. After AWP, it felt like I needed to take a step away from the work, especially as the book found its way to family and friends. It was shockingly difficult, to the point where today at noon was the first time I really looked at the book again. The reception of the book has been wonderful. My friends and poets and people I don’t even know have reached out to me and said how much they love it. But at the same time, I was hiding from it and from the complications it has invited. It’s hard putting these subjects into writing, and it’s very difficult when it becomes a book and is out there in the world.
BT: The title Unmonstrous feels so central to the themes you explore throughout the chapbook, of overcoming abuse and rejecting victimhood status. I’m curious about how you chose the title and how you feel it represents the work as a whole.
JAT: As I wrote my way further into the book and further into these poems, I found myself becoming increasingly interested in defining what is unmonstrous or not monstrous, what paths do we have through and then after monstrosity, or in light of monstrosity, or in carrying monstrosity. The word itself appeared at last in one of the most difficult poems in the book to write, and one of the more opaque and tenuous ones, “Unmonstrous.” It appeared in a moment where I maybe didn’t expect it, this idea of being not monstrous or unmonstrous in this pure sense, trying to achieve or address life after trauma and horror. The word surfaced in this moment when the speaker was addressing the abuser, and it’s told with deep venom and disbelief and anger. It was a turning point in my writing for me and in my understanding of the work of writing about trauma, to release this idea of purity in the unmonstrous and feel more sure on my feet in anger. I think that was a relieving moment, when I felt like I was able to move forward in the writing about this very difficult subject matter and in anger. So the title of the work, and what I am trying to do in my writing of poetry, is to dismantle the monstrous and start to define and expose the monstrous in this way. But where it exists in the book, and where the book arrives, at least in part, is in anger, and I hope that’s one of the things the book achieves, the right to be angry.
BT: When you started writing Unmonstrous, what was the process like unearthing and reliving the trauma you explore throughout it? At least for me, traumatic experiences often float through the back of my mind but don’t always surface. So when you wrote these poems, what was your experience reliving trauma? Was there any sort of catharsis you reached or was it just mostly just painful?
JAT: Was writing these poems cathartic to me? Not at all. But they weren’t necessarily excruciating to write either. What was helpful to me early on in my writing of some of these poems, especially the ones that more directly engage in memory of trauma, was seeing the work I was doing as work and not as therapy. Writing, rewriting, unearthing these memories, and putting them onto the page can be really traumatizing, and it often was over the years of writing this book. But I worked very hard to protect myself from this sort of bathing in memory and used my craft as insulation. Doing so allowed me to take even just a half step back from the “I” speaker in the book, who is obviously me. But I took that step back feeling like I had greater agency over the facts and also the craft of the book, so I did not feel yoked by either one of them unnecessarily. I failed often. The critical work of writing about, and ideally writing through, trauma is finding a balance between your personal health and distance from the experience so that you are able to write it in a way that is useful to you and ideally useful to other people. Even if I’m justifying or determining that I am not writing therapy poetry—and there’s nothing wrong with therapy poetry, that I’m not writing these poems as a therapeutic exercise—are these poems doing work that is useful for other people? I don’t know that I always have an answer to that question.
I’m compelled to write about and against sexual abuse and childhood sexual abuse, but also how they are a product of patriarchy and white supremacy. These systems of power that we see every single day. It’s this work I see the book doing. I don’t know how often I’m successful in it. But when you ask about what it is like to write these poems, is it cathartic? No, it is not cathartic. Is it painful? Yes, oftentimes. But I work to protect myself and center this idea of writing, not necessarily for a cause, but writing because I do want to effect change, which can help insulate the writer from the subject matter.
BT: In the book, you craft a narrative beginning with the origins of trauma, its aftermath, and finding the strength to live with these painful experiences. What was your thought process in ordering the poems in this chapbook to serve that narrative?
JAT: The last poem in the book, “How,” I wrote before many of the other poems in the book. In a sense, when I wrote it, it was sort of this target I was shooting for, this end point. There were a couple times in the editing of the book where we were actually flipping back and forth between the last poem, “How,” and the second to last poem, “Love Poem for Marie,” this hand-wringing about who has the last word, the speaker focused on the abuser or the speaker focused on the partner or lover. It was a really hard decision to make, and the decision to end it with “How” gets a little bit closer to the heart of the book, in that these issues of trauma and revisiting trauma and trauma revisiting the individual is cyclical and also that health is possible and attainable. But I felt these experiences and how trauma inhabits the body over and over and over again were important to represent in the structure of the book. Even though “How” was a poem that I wrote early on, it did feel very much like a destination for the book, somewhere I was trying to get the book to. When I wrote it, it felt very much like a moment of victory for the speaker.
This is probably the greatest distance between me as the poet and as the speaker. It changes day to day, but especially when there are declarative statements by the speaker that signal this movement away from trauma and into health. That’s the final moment of the book where the speaker wakes up, this declarative statement or this command, “Look, look where I am.” I mean, in a sense, this book is strictly autobiographical, but I often feel very far from it. In thinking about the poems as artifacts and the book as a narrative and the speaker through the narrative and finally the poet above and through all of that, it becomes very complex. Even today as I was sitting down to read the book for the first time in months, there are moments that feel really different, they feel almost alien to me. I think that’s one of the most fascinating things about the work of choosing a narrative, because the narrative of the book is obviously not the narrative or the chronology of the poet’s life. It is a created thing, a made thing, an argument being made. So as far as the structure of the book, I wanted to bring as much agency back to the speaker as I could manage, as felt reasonable and true and honest. I wanted to recognize that even in these moments of having agency, of feeling beyond that bitterness or anger, the ability to speak to the abuser, to the trauma as it lives quite closely in you, never goes away. For me, the great joy of the book is ending with Marie, and the speaker being right there with Marie. The horror of the book is the abuser’s presence at the end too. I think that is the most accurate testament to how trauma can be represented in the structure of the book.
BT: Exactly, and I think the last poem really is a moment of victory for the speaker, as the book comes full circle from the first poem, “Monster.” In that poem, you write, “I address the monster inside me / which is animal and male,” and the definition of what is monstrous is more vague. At the end, when you state the abuser’s name, it’s a really compelling and pivotal moment in the chapbook, with the speaker finally reclaiming power for himself.
JAT: So when you asked earlier, what does it feel like publishing this book, what does the aftermath feel like—some of these poems I sent only to print magazines. I hid from these poems for a while. I guess, publishing them is not hiding them under my pillow, but there are definitely certain ways to publish. The poem where the abuser is named was a horrifying moment for me in the writing of those two poems. It was a moment of power, in a way, but it felt more like power for the speaker than power for me, the poet. I wanted the speaker to have the power to use that name as a name that belonged to him, to the speaker, but I don’t always feel that way. There are a lot of times in the book where I’m writing into the ideal. It’s an interesting impulse, especially in the writing of trauma: to write ourselves through or past trauma even when we are not.
BT: In “After All,” in discussing your relationship with your father you write, “you know every now and then / I’ll cast a crown that sits poorly and rocks / on its post so I recast it. My father is a dentist. / What he means is if I worked harder / I could write happy poems.” As someone who also writes poems that are not always the happiest, this response is frustrating because it suggests that we as writers have an obligation to elicit joy in our readers, which should somehow take priority over writing what comes to us. So how do you or how have you rebelled against this expectation and answered the question, “Why can’t you write more happy poems?” as you’ve matured as a writer?
JAT: I have two answers and the first is, “I do write happy poems!” I don’t mean to suggest that you don’t think that, but that is something my father has said to me before. People say that all the time, “Oh wow! You wrote a poem! That’s great! You should try writing happy poems.” We hear that especially when we are very specifically and targetedly working through difficult subject matter. “How” is not a happy poem, but there is joy there. It’s a strange kind of joy, but it is there. There are a couple of other poems that sort of inhabit that middle ground, where the poem isn’t using words like joy and bright and light and laugh, but we are getting closer or brushing up against that idea of contentment, at least, or happiness or joy.
Especially as young writers, it’s really important to think about the work that we’re doing right now. At one moment, when I’m sitting down to write one poem, I do not need to be doing joy, grief, happiness, loss, God, religion, death. I don’t have to be doing it all at one time. We know that for one poem, and we maybe know that for one book. But do we know that for two books or ten years? It’s important to step back and realize, “I am doing a job, my poems are performing an action, I am working on something. If that something isn’t happiness that’s fine.” It’s also worth questioning what it means for someone to request joy and happiness from a poet writing about trauma. It’s a kind of silencing. “I read your poem about trauma, thank you. Next, I would like a poem about happiness wherein I do not have to think about x, y, and z.” It’s important for us, especially as young writers, to release ourselves from this idea that the work we’re doing right now has to be everything, has to win these prizes, has to be published here, here, and here, has to appease or appeal to this group of people. When we focus on that or allow ourselves to become troubled by that, we lose sight of what our work is.
BT: Exactly. Often, if you try to write a happy poem, it’s not going to be happy, and going against those expectations isn’t an act of rebellion but doing what feels natural to us and being more sure on our feet in the emotions we feel most strongly in the moment. So what are you working on now?
JAT: I finished my full-length manuscript right around the time Unmonstrous came out into the world. Some poems from Unmonstrous are in the full length. I’d say my full-length is probably a long letter to my mom.
I am also teaching myself how to make sourdough bread. Especially to any young writer who may be reading this interview, my little bit of advice is to get a hobby that is not poetry. This, maybe more than poetry, is the thing that has saved me. Candle making, gardening, bread. It’s really wonderful to be able to have something that is not language necessarily, and to work my hands in it. Maybe I’ll make a book of bread recipes and bread poems, maybe that will be my next chapbook. I’m on a bit of a pause after finishing the full-length. We’ll see what’s next, but for now bread.